Eighteen-year-old Conner McDowell was bullied throughout primary school but he never let it defeat him. Instead, he used the experience to fuel his desire to lead and become a beacon of hope for other kids with similar experiences.
“I’m not the only kid that’s going to get bullied and I’m not the only kid that’s going to get picked on,” Conner said on the Leading With Nice Interview Series podcast. “I just want to be a guy, really, that they can look upon and be like, he went through this and he went through that, and he’s still successful. Anything is possible to overcome if you want it bad enough. I really just want to be that role model for other people and myself.”
Today, he’s the valedictorian of Neil McNeil Catholic High School in Scarborough, Ont. and a recipient of a DAREarts Youth Leadership Award — recognizing his dedication to create incredible positive change in his own life and in his community. A life-long train enthusiast, he decided to pursue his passion and is currently studying to be a train conductor in Alberta.
Conner is a shining example that although it’s never too late to lead — it’s never too early, either. Check out our conversation with the young leader below.
You’re not always going to get a great mark on your first try. You’re not always going to get to your dream. Sometimes on your first shot, for me, high school taught me to like, shoot for the stars. Always. But sometimes if you miss, at least you land on the moon. And the next time you decide to shoot for that dream again, you’re that much closer than you were before.
Good day. And welcome to the leading with Nice interview series podcast. My name is Mathieu Yuill. And today I’m really excited because we’re doing something we haven’t done before and that’s for having a student on now. Typically, if you listen to the podcast, most people we’ve had on are probably over 30. Plus, they’re working. They’re full time because often we’re looking for people that have seasoned leadership advice can offer you practical tips and actionable items. And so typically, that comes from people who have had a bit more work experience, life experience, et cetera.
However, I was fortunate enough earlier this year to be speaking to a high school class and our guest today, Conner McDowell was a member of that class, and instantly it was pretty apparent that there is something unique and special about Conner. So we had an email conversation and we talked to a company on the podcast show. And here he is now, Conner, before I tell you a little bit about you, welcome to the show. How are you doing?
Not bad, Mathieu. I appreciate it. And I’m really looking forward to it.
That’s so cool. All right.
So a few things now you’re in grade twelve, you’re graduating and do I understand you’ve been named Valedictorian?
It is. Honestly, yes, it’s a huge honour, especially because I just learned about a week or two ago, and it’s really humbling, especially to be chosen by the guys at Neil and the community. It’s a huge honor for me. And honestly, when I hear about it, I’m speechless. When they told me I broke down in tears. It was a happy moment in my life, and I’m never going to forget it.
Well, just so you know, speechless and valedictorian do not go together. There’ll probably be a speech involved at some point.
Conner enjoys a lot of things and just a few of them. I’m going to read off his bio here fishing, hunting, powerlifting, hockey, soccer, baseball, track and field and football. But I also know Neil when he said, Neil, that’s Neil McNeil, the high school that he attends here in Toronto that I’ve done some work with through a client. And one of the things Neil McNeil is very big into his leaders. And I became aware of Conner because he has played a role in I’m not sure the title or the term is at the school, Conner, but it’s like a big brother or a mentor.
Big brother. Younger students.
Yeah, big brother. So what’s involved in doing that job at Neil?
So really what it is is I’ll explain the whole program. I’ll try to keep it short. So it’s like you come in grade nine and you get grade eleven big brothers, and you get grade twelve big brother coordinators. So really, what that is is you have a group of younger students to look after. You’re, making sure that the younger kids follow good habits, that they get their work done, that they enjoy the best out of their first year. They get the most out of it. So it’s really like what a big brother would do in real life.
They take care of the little brothers, and they make sure that they’re doing everything and doing it to the best of their ability. And you’re there to answer questions. Really for them, right? They’re brand new to the school. They don’t know, really the habit, the flow of what’s going to go on. So if they have any questions, the big brothers are always there to answer it, maybe give them some exam review, how I study how others study. So I really enjoyed it, especially me coming into school in grade nine because my big brother really got me introduced to the school, and I owe a lot to him because he actually helped me to be who I am today just from me spending time with them.
So it’s an amazing program. And if people listening, go to Neil or thinking about it, it makes the school really special. And I wouldn’t change much about it at all.
Now, in addition to all the things I mentioned, you work part time. You’ve done a lot of volunteer work. So you’re a young, motivated man. I’m just curious, how did that come to be like, what were your influences?
So I honestly got bullied from kindergarten all the way up to grade eight. And that’s not the way I wanted to learn about life. But it was the way that I was taught about it. And I was a guy who got diagnosed with a learning disability who got diagnosed with ADHD and, like, grade two or grade three. And then really, what happened is I always used to get bullied about that because I was three grades behind in math. I was two grades behind in English, and so I was always picked on because I always had to walk in front of the class with a grade five textbook when everyone was doing grade eight work.
And I remember I went up to my grade eight teacher at the time, and I was like, Miss, I want to give grade eight math a try. And then I remember she gave me a unit that she hasn’t even teach the class yet. So I had zero clue because she didn’t even teach the class. So she gave me that unit. I did that a few questions, and I didn’t get one, right, because I had no clue she didn’t talk about it. And then the thing that really motivated me was the fact that she says, I knew you couldn’t do it.
And as much as that hurt me at the time, that just made me when I got out of that school in grade nine to be like, I’m going to prove this teacher wrong. I’m going to prove everybody who ever said you are dumb because you’re two grades behind. I’m going to prove them wrong. I might not prove them wrong in one year, but it’s taken four years, and I’m still trying to better myself, but also prove the people who said I could never do it wrong.
And the thing, another thing that motivated me also was just the fact that I’m not the only kid that’s going to get bullied. I’m not the only kid that’s going to get picked on. So I just want to be a guy, really, that they can look upon and be like, he went through this. He went through that, and he’s still successful. Anything is possible to overcome if you want it bad enough. So I really just want to be that role model for other people and myself.
But you very easily could have gone the other way where you regressed into a shell. So what made it that you decided to prove the doubt is wrong? Did you see that model somewhere? Did you get encouragement from somewhere? Where is your support system to do that?
Well, my support system. I’ll be completely honest with you. My parents were really good. They offered me. They’re like, What, Conner, do you want to move schools? Is this too much? And I said no. So they supported me in that sense, if I wanted to move, I had a lot of tutors that helped me out and everything. But I tried to support myself because I’ve always been a big believer that if you can support yourself through one challenge, you can support yourself through many challenges. And like I said earlier, the bullying made me learn that every day you walk out that front door, every day you walk out whatever door you’re leaving, there’s going to be a new challenge, whether it be a good challenge or a bad challenge.
And then I actually started before COVID putting out motivational quotes and just sending them to people separately on text and stuff. And then I had a few people message me and say, you should start doing motivational videos. So I did a few of them and people loved them. And then I just started doing more research on it, listening to the great motivational speakers on YouTube and listening to their press conferences or whatever. And then I started researching topics that I could talk about. And then it just really went off where I just found a new passion and a new love for helping people and making sure that regardless what they go through, that they can get through it and be the best version of themselves.
So who are some of your favorite speakers you like to watch. Just give me a list.
Oh, Jeez, that might be pretty hard. Eric Thomas. He’s a huge motivational speaker. I love him. Who else? Tony Robbins. Yeah, he’s a great motivational speaker. Just listening to their voice and what their voice has to say just kicks me into gear, just gets me fired up.
So you’re finishing your high school career. As I mentioned in the intro, you’re off to College next year, and you’re really hardwired to motivate and encourage other people. So I’m just curious, in your experience, what does high school do? Really well to help develop young people? What’s high school good at when it comes to making you who you are today?
Okay, well, I have to put out a huge thank you to Neil McNeil for making me who I am today. And you know what it’s either you could do with high school. You can either take it in as a brand new chapter in your life or a brand new opportunity, or you can use it to just kind of settle down. I know people that used it to better themselves. And I know people that went to high school, and sadly, they went downhill from high school. But that’s just depending the path you want to walk.
But what high school, I think for me and for a few other people, did really well was it gave you experiences, whether it be making a wise decision, handing things in on time, working hard, staying dedicated, working through failure, being committed to your assignments, to your sports teams, showing respect. And I’ll give a few examples of that, especially with I’ll give you an example for myself. I had an ISU or an exam on Monday, and a few buddies asked me to go to a party Sunday night, and I find again, just a high school experience.
Think with the end in mind and put first things first. Do I go to that party and not get a good Mark? Or do I get a good Mark and then go to a party further down the road? And I’m not a huge party guy. So I said there’s only one chance to get that 90 on that exam. You’re going to get tons of chances down the road to hang out with your friends and do whatever.
So that was one huge thing with me was making the right decision and putting first things first and finding your why when do you want to make your high school career and why this is actually part of that is great into the next set of questions I want to ask you about it’s all around. Team build. Because when you’re in school, you often get put into teams. You’re asked to do group work, you’re asked to do assignments. You’ve played a lot of sports. What are some obstacles in high school to building that great team?
Whether it be a class. So think first about a team in class for doing a project. What are some obstacles? Both the teachers for the students to actually create a really great team.
So especially with, you know, and with life and work experience and whatever you might be with a guy that you don’t see eye to eye. You might think this is a good idea, but he doesn’t like it, and he thinks that’s a good idea. So that’s a challenge, regardless of wherever in life you’re going to always overcome and face if you work with people. So for me, what builds a good hockey team? What builds a good project? Team? What builds a good whatever team is, listen to what the others have to say and then give your input.
Don’t try and add your input on theirs. Give them the time they need to talk. And then you add on what you need to talk. And what I find is too many people, especially in projects. They try to talk like I said earlier, they try to talk over each other instead of just meshing. So what I like to do, especially when I’m working in a team, is if he says, let’s say it’s a slide presentation and he wants to do that and I say, okay, I don’t mind that idea.
It’s not what I want, but you do a slide of that, and then the second slide, I’ll do my format. So it’s the sort of thing that you have to give everybody a chance, right? Because not one person is going to work or do the project the same way as somebody else. So you have to give the other people time to express their talents as well. I’m not going to ever force a guy on my hog team or guy on my project to do it my way, because that’s the way that I grew up with.
He might have grown up a completely different way, and me making him change his style might not be comfortable for him like it is myself. So to me, it’s just really building a good team is just being a good leader. First of all, being respectful of what other people have to say and the way they work, because everybody works differently, as I said earlier, and just respecting and treating everybody like they want to be treated in a group. I’d never go in a good like a group and then just treat everybody like they’re below me because teamwork makes the dream work, right.
Everybody contributes something different. And I always like to say to I have something that my group member doesn’t have and my group member has something that I don’t have. So instead of just stepping on the talents that they have, let’s try combining those to make it a better project than if I just did per se, what I think was right.
One of the pieces that you brought up that I thought was very interesting is, you don’t know about each other.
It would be great if there was some tools or training that helped us in high school identify each other’s personality types and communication styles.
I think it would be pretty cool, I think, because the teacher usually gives you a short amount of time to meet with your group. They’re like, all right. Five minutes. Hi. My name’s Conner. Hi. My name is Joe. Nice to meet you. What do you want to do? The project on, and they’re like, okay, do your project. You’re like, what? What does this guy want to do? What does this guy want to do? They give you brainstorming time. But I think what you said earlier, I think it would be good for them to give you maybe not five minutes, but a class just to talk to your classmates, talk to your group members, talk to your team about what they want to do as a whole, not just as an eye.
So I think it would be a great idea. I would love to see that.
So let’s talk about the future. So I have a few questions here. I’m going to lay them all out and we go through them again. So in this future category, I’d love to know, what do you learn about yourself in high school? Like, how do you learn about yourself and how do you use whatever information you have to decide what you want to do?
So I was blessed to be one of these guys who I used to go to the train station before I could walk and watch train. So I knew from the day I could be able to talk and walk. I want to drive a train when I get older. So I was blessed. But not everybody has that vision in 20 years and 30 years and whatever. But what really I learned in high school was I always like to say the four years in high school is the journey.
That four years in high school is really where you learn who and what you want to be. Some people go through high school and don’t know what they want to be. And that’s all right, because everyone has a different plan. But I just know from myself through high school, it didn’t really for me teach me what I wanted to be. But it taught me skills that will help me get to where I want to be. So it’s like, sort of thing is with people with goals and dreams.
Let’s say my dream is to be a train driver one day, which it is high school taught me that, you know what? You have a dream, but it’s like a test. You’re not always going to get a great Mark on your first try. You’re not always going to get to your dream. Sometimes on your first shot, sometimes you have to take a step back and rethink what you want to do. Rethink your strategy for me. High school taught me to shoot for the stars always. But sometimes if you miss, at least you land on the moon.
And the next time you decide to shoot for that dream again, you’re that much closer than you were before. Another thing, high school, what it really taught me was it taught me patience. Also, patience is a big virtue to have in life because you’re not always going to get things first. Try, like I said, and you’re going to have to do things like you’re going to have assignments balanced with sports balanced with is used. So I just know high school helped me grow as a person and help me get that much closer to my dreams and my goals.
Just because of the things that I experienced and how you take as an experience, you could fail the test and you can take it as that’s just going to motivate me to do that much better on the next test, or you can take it as I fail the test and then it just goes downhill from there. It taught me really, how bad do you want it? And what are you willing to go through to get to it?
What I would love to talk about then, is there’s business leaders, CEOs, directors and managers listening right now. They’re like, man, what this young man has I want for my employees. So tell me about a couple of the actual things you did, the practical tools because we don’t remember high school. In fact, high school is way different now than it was when we were growing up. So what are some of the things you actually did that you would look back at and be like that thing was so helpful.
I think a moment in high school that really taught me, like what I just described would honestly have to be this year and last year and that’s COVID-19 and online learning. And it’s the fact that not everything like I said is going to be easy. And like I said earlier, it’s how bad you want it and the fact that I still see all of my classmates. I still see all my staff and students at Neil waking up every day and still putting in 110% effort, even though it’s online, they’re not in class.
We don’t get to play sports teams. Everyone is still putting in a maximum effort regardless of how hard it is. And I agree it’s not fun to wake up and just smile and wave in front of a camera. For me in high school, I always loved waking up and looking forward to I got a Neol hockey game today. I get to see the guys. I get to have another memory today, I get to achieve another goal, and that’s really helped what I said earlier with the online Kovid because it actually pushed me to want to come out better than I went in.
And it actually also forced me to change and adapt to other things. Where now that I know that if I can change and adapt to COVID, I can change and adapt to anything in life. I don’t know if that’s how other people are looking at, because I said, everybody takes everything different and you can take this as I want it better, or this has really slowed you down and you’re in a bad place right now, and that’s just everybody’s different. So for me, it would have to be honestly, these coveted two years losing my grade eleven senior year, losing my grade twelve senior year, no prong, no sports.
Hopefully there’s a graduation. But I’m not counting on anything at this point. That would be the thing that really helped me through wanting it more.
If you go back to grade nine and design like a tool or resource or invent a training that they gave grade nine and ten students to make the high school experience even better and even more useful and help them see their future clear what kind of things would be included in that training and resources.
That’s an amazing question for the grade nine coming into high school, what I would have is like you said, if I had to teach a course or if I had to do a talk with them, I’d probably just bring up a few main points and then build on those points. So for me, what I know going into grade nine, what helped me was I’ll just name off five right off the top of my head. One of them was mindset. I could either go in with the mindset that I’m going to make the best out of this four years.
It’s a brand new chapter. I’m going to put what happened to me in grade eight and grade five and grade whatever in the past. I’m going to bring the things over that it taught me, and I’m going to build on those and I’m going to leave the things that it didn’t teach me in the past because what I like to find is some people get stuck in the past and life keeps moving on regardless. It’s hard, but it’s either you pick up and you learn or you get stuck.
That’s the one thing the first thing I would teach is mindset. It doesn’t matter if you’re grade nine, grade ten, grade eleven, grade twelve, want it more and more every year and build on your experiences more and more every year. The second thing I would have to say is work hard and just work hard at everything you do. It doesn’t matter if it’s a small review. It doesn’t matter if it’s an ISU. When you work hard in everything, the hard work transfers over to the small and big things.
It’s like doing a small task. If you can wake up every morning and make your bed, you can do a bigger task. Something as simple as making your bed prepares you for the day and for the bigger tasks to come, that would be number two. Number three for me would have to be respect. Respect is huge. You can walk a mile in somebody’s shoes, but the shoes won’t always fit you right. You can see guys smiling and happy, but you don’t know what’s going on there in their life.
So three would be respect for me. Treat people like yourself. You wouldn’t call yourself names, you wouldn’t put yourself down. So don’t do that to other people. The thing I love to say is, we all have hearts. We all have skin, we all have blood. We all have feelings that makes us all family, not family by blood, not by last name, but it makes us family by heart. So instead of disrespecting your family or instead of putting your family down, treat everybody like you would your mom and dad use your manners, be nice to them.
Try to uplift them when their days not going the best because it takes one person positively spreads, even though you don’t notice it, it spreads. If you make one person’s day, that person might go home and make their parents day and then their parents just because they’re happier, might go and make their friends day. So show respect would be my close second. What?
I love the idea that I think you’ve heard about this with you earlier where your parents were involved with giving tools to parents and students. That just brings greater awareness to help their son or daughter or child through school.
Exactly. It’s good to give the parents and the student tools because sometimes most of the time students can do it on their own, but there’s some time and sometimes that everybody gets thrown off track and needs the parents or needs their friends just to put them back on the right track.
It’s a great way to close with the track analogy. Since you’re headed off to engineering at school to be a train engineer, I am looking forward to one day being headed down to the CN to hear your voice on the go. Or maybe who knows, via on my way to Montreal or something. That’d be great. Conner, thank you so much for taking time to the few people that make this possible. You and I show up, and so many people have done work to get us here. Cindy Craig.
She had all the communication and book, make sure that you knew where to come. Got your bio, et cetera. Naomi Grossman, who works with Nice with me. She helps with the questions. If you are seeing this on social or if you see it on the website, there’s a reason for that. And it’s Jamie Hunter. He’s our content manager. He did all this. Sam Fortunate, all the graphic design and all the social graphics. Austin Pomeroy did all the audio engineering and editing of this. Jeff and Horn did all the video stuff for us, and Kerry Cotton, our account manager.
While we were here talking, she was making sure the business is running smoothly. So I got to thank her as well. Conner.
Dude. I loved our conversation. I’ve enjoyed getting to know you. I look forward to hearing about all your success.
Thank you, Conner.
Thank you so much. Have a great day, man.
You too. Bye.